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Calvin Johnson - A Wonderful Beast Music Album Reviews

With help from the Black Keys’ Patrick Carney and erstwhile pop star Michelle Branch, the DIY icon finds new ways to tease out light and dark, allure and anxiety with his key-ignoring baritone.

Calvin Johnson’s key-ignoring baritone subverts any song it graces—countering rhythms, shifting tones, darkening even the sunniest moods. That voice is a big part of what made Beat Happening’s work deeper than standard DIY twee, and it’s since stirred all his other projects, from the the indie rock of Halo Benders to the dance pop of Selecter Dub Narcotic. Like the contrapuntal emissions of the Fall’s Mark E. Smith, Public Image Limited’s John Lydon, and Pere Ubu’s David Thomas, Johnson’s singing constantly disrupts the music around him.

On A Wonderful Beast, Johnson’s third solo album but first in 13 years, these disruptions begin immediately during opener “Kiss Me Sweetly.” Johnson’s gravity-laden singing battles the soaring highs of turn-of-the-millenium pop star Michelle Branch, dragging them to earth for a sinister love song where the demand for a kiss sounds a little like a threat. Likewise, Johnson’s dense moans chill the bright tones supplied by the Black Keys’ Patrick Carney, the record’s producer and a one-man backing band of guitar, drums, bass, and keyboards.

It might seem odd that Johnson would pair with Carney and Branch, two figures far outside his normal scene, but he’s always been an open and avid collaborator, working with Built to Spill’s Doug Martsch, Bikini Kill’s Tobi Vail, and the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion. Here, the partnership creates a dynamic of friction—upbeat sounds distorted by tremorous vocals—that defines A Wonderful Beast, giving it a tonal depth that rewards repeat listens.

The contrast also adds intriguing ambiguity to even the simplest songs. If delivered earnestly, “Like You Do” could be a pure ballad supported by staccato guitar and swelling keyboards. But Johnson’s wry sing-speak straddles sincerity and sarcasm, sometimes mocking the idea of romantic relationships altogether. The catchy “Wherefore Art Thou” reworks Romeo and Juliet into a snarling cartoon, while good-cop Branch and bad-cop Johnson pit emotional empathy against skepticism during “Another Teardrop Falls.” The oddly political “Bubbles, Clouds and Rainbows” is the album’s most cryptic moment. During dreamy verses and a chorus of “alt, right, click, delete,” Johnson imagines achieving nirvana by eradicating hateful fringes. But the song is so sunny, it’s possible to hear him making the opposite case, too. When he sings ”welcome to our bubble,” it’s as if he were sarcastically admonishing the perils of the opposition’s echo chamber.

Those nuances may make A Wonderful Beast seem tedious or heavy-going, but it’s actually quite entertaining. The tunes Johnson wrote with Carney teem with hooks, and Carney’s production has the spirit of a poppy garage session. Some songs are even best enjoyed at the surface, as with “Are We Ready,” which begins with Johnson crooning “What does it mean to shing-a-ling?” He extols the utopian magic of simple pleasures on “When the Weekend Comes Around.” “All the problems solve themselves/When the weekend comes around,” he sings over a pulsing New Order-esque bassline. “When the weekend comes around/Is when the records spin around.”

Sunny sentiments mixed with darker hues was a hallmark of one of Beat Happening’s best albums, Black Candy, a title that applies to Johnson’s approach to music in general. A Wonderful Beast is too overtly engaging for a pitch-black album cover, instead using a colorful portrait of Johnson by Mecca Normal’s Jean Smith to capture the singer’s peculiar allure. A Wonderful Beast shows again how Johnson’s voice adds layers of meaning to his music—and how he’s kept that skill fresh by finding new ways to deploy it, and new people to help.

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